The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion If Netanyahu wins Israel’s election, the Mideast doomsayers may finally be proved right

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks at his watch before delivering a statement at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem on Dec. 19, 2018.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks at his watch before delivering a statement at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem on Dec. 19, 2018. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

For 30 years and more, one faction of Mideast mavens has been arguing that it is too late for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because of Israel’s relentless seeding of Jewish settlements in the Arab territories it has occupied since 1967. Most of the U.S. diplomatic establishment has resisted the argument, which often has relied more on emotion — including anti-Israel animus — than hard data.

That may be about to change. If Benjamin Netanyahu succeeds in prolonging his tenure as Israel’s prime minister following Tuesday’s election, the proposition that Israelis and Palestinians will be condemned to live in one state forever is likely to become inescapable. That would mean a choice between a country that is secular and democratic but binational, or a Jewish apartheid regime.

In other words, if “Bibi” wins, the doomsayers about Israel are finally going to be proved right.

Why were they wrong before? Because, for much of his decade-long tenure, Netanyahu carefully left open the possibility of Palestinian statehood. In 2009, to please Barack Obama, he even endorsed it. During his first eight years in office, Netanyahu quietly restrained the growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank beyond a border-like barrier near the 1967 lines, thereby preserving the possibility of a territorial division.

As recently as 2017, one of the most careful demographers of the settlements, David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, calculated that some 80 percent of Israeli settlers lived on the 8 percent of the West Bank inside the barrier, meaning that a separation into two states was still feasible.

Two developments have blown up that status quo. First, Netanyahu embraced a political strategy of radical nationalism, and sought allies in Israel’s far right and religious parties rather than with secular supporters of two states. Then Donald Trump, as U.S. president, granted Netanyahu carte blanche, vaporizing what had been powerful U.S. constraints on Israeli territorial ambitions.

The result is an emerging Netanyahu strategy to consolidate permanent Israeli control over all of what was once Palestine, leaving the 4.9 million Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with something less than sovereignty — and no voting rights in Israel. Hinting that he had Trump’s support, Netanyahu promised last week that if he were reelected, he would quickly annex the Jordan Valley, which runs along the West Bank’s eastern border with Jordan. He further pledged to annex all of the West Bank settlements, including those far beyond the barrier.

“If he annexes the things he’s talking about,” Makovsky told me, “it’s over.” There would be no chance of creating a Palestinian state. That would, he said, “cripple Israel’s founding mission as a Jewish democratic state with equal rights for all.”

A lot of people think Netanyahu, who is desperate to remain in office to avoid a likely prosecution on corruption charges, is bluffing. He has a record of making wild promises before elections and then dropping them. But Makovsky’s numbers show that the current Israeli government has already radically shifted settlement policy. In 2017, when Trump took office, there were 94,000 Israelis living beyond the West Bank barrier. In just two years, the number has shot up to 103,000. That’s an average annual population increase 50 percent higher than during Netanyahu’s previous eight years.

In August, Makovsky reported that of 2,343 new housing units newly approved by the government, 69 percent were beyond the West Bank barrier — a stark reversal of the previous Netanyahu policy. Tellingly, one of the largest additions was to the town of Beit El, which overlooks the Palestinian city of Ramallah. Trump’s ambassador in Israel, David Friedman, previously headed the American Friends of Beit El.

He hardly appears likely to oppose annexation. Nor does Trump, who vaguely referred to restraining settlements at his first meeting with Netanyahu but has since overseen the drafting of a yet-to-be-released U.S. peace plan that, according to Israeli reports, concedes Israel the Jordan Valley and does not endorse full Palestinian ­statehood.

The Israeli election has played out as a referendum on Netanyahu and his polarizing leadership. But its hidden “defining issue,” Makovsky says, is the survival of the two-state solution. The principal rival of Netanyahu’s Likud party, the centrist Blue and White coalition, is opposed to annexation and to settlement construction beyond the barrier. At the moment, polls show both parties falling short of obtaining a majority in the Knesset, or parliament, with their most likely allies. They could end up in a coalition together, with or without Netanyahu; or one could join with a right-wing secular party that aspires to be ­kingmaker.

Israeli elections are notoriously unpredictable. But we know this: If Netanyahu wins, the course of the Jewish state will be changed ­irrevocably.

Read more from Jackson Diehl’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

Read more:

Robert Kagan: Israel and the decline of the liberal order

Dahlia Scheindlin: Here’s what the Israeli public thinks about Netanyahu’s campaign promise to annex parts of the West Bank.

Jackson Diehl: History will remember how Trump responded to Hong Kong

The Post’s View: Barring two U.S. lawmakers from Israel is un-Israeli. Trump’s cheering for it is un-American.

Dana Milbank: Dear Israel: Please dump Netanyahu. Your friend, America.